Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Under the Bed (2012)

After having spent two years with his Aunt, undergoing psychological treatment and being home-schooled, teenager Neal Hausman (Jonny Weston) is dragged back home by his father Terry (Peter Holden). Neal had to leave home in some event involving a fire he may or may not have started that caused the death of his mother, an event the film will explain in detail much later. In any case, Terry clearly blames Neal for his wife's death.

Consequently, it's not so much Terry's idea to take his son back in, but rather that of his soon-to-be new wife Angela (Musetta Vander) who'd like to help Terry, Neal and Neal's little brother Paulie (Gattlin Griffith), who has been living with his father and her, grow back together again.

Despite Angela's - not always well thought through - efforts, there are quite a few things standing in the way of her dream of a pleasant and loving family life: namely a future husband whose reaction to psychologically troubled kids is screaming at them like an actual crazy person and rambling bullshit about normality and being a man at them. Terry's the type who loves to talk about other people having to take responsibility for their lives, something he seems particularly bad at himself. I think we're supposed to assume Terry wasn't always the jerk he is now, and the death of his wife changed him, but the film doesn't establish any visible signs of an inner conflict for him; in fact, he makes not a single loving gesture towards his children in the whole movie until the very end.

Terry himself would already be more than enough trouble for any child or teenager not coming from a family TV show but then there's the fact that Neal is as damaged as he is for an even worse reason than an emotionally abusive father. What really drove him away from home is the monster living under his bed. Even worse, once Neal was gone, it started terrorizing Paulie who didn't have anyone to help him, and is now pretty much at the end of his mental strength. From this perspective, Neal's return is the best that could have happened, for now, the brothers can face their fear (and a very real monster) together.

Steven C. Miller's Under the Bed is a bit of a frustrating film. The problem is not so much that it is a bad film, but rather that it is a pretty good film that regularly misses its opportunities for becoming great, despite cribbing whenever possible from every movie about children and teenagers having to face their supernatural monsters alone (particularly the Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark remake seems to be a favourite here).

Case in point is the way the film portrays Terry as a raging asshole who isn't so much overwhelmed by his own guilt and his inability to cope with the troubles of his children as a natural jerk bordering on a talking plot device (need to lock up your protagonists in the dark? let Terry do it!), where a father who is trying but failing instead of making no visible effort at all would fit much better into the childhood fears Neal and Paulie have to go through. This weakness also weakens Angela as a believable character. It is, after all, not too difficult to believe she's well-meaning yet inept (but can come through at the end) doing the whole parenting thing, but it's quite impossible to understand what she'd see in Terry. The not quite believable state of these central relations between the adult characters weakens the film's cause considerably.

I'm also less than enamoured by the way Miller decides to realize its monster when it comes out. I'm perfectly fine with gore but the head-ripping creature we get in the end is so much less frightening than it could or should be it's close to embarrassing. If your monster is a metaphor for childhood fears, then it damn well better be the embodiment of childhood fears, and not just another horror movie monster. Sometimes, a bit of subtlety goes a long way. It doesn't help the creature's case that it is about four times louder than anything else in the film. The connected scares aren't so much jump scares as "fear of deafness" scares, again using a bludgeon on the audience where a scalpel would be more appropriate.

On the positive side, the film's first forty minutes or so (before these problems really hit home) are a pretty believable portrait of a traumatized teen returning home full of fear and coming to realize that his greatest fears aren't just true but now threatening the only part of his family left alive he still feels a connection to. Jonny Weston and Gattlin Griffith are highly believable and effective in their roles, too, not just bringing the pain they go through to life, but also the camaraderie and the love. It's their performances that bring the best parts of Under the Bed to life, saving large parts of it from simple mediocrity.

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